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Alberta’s Vista coal mine expansion will now face a federal review. Here’s why Ottawa reversed course

Environmental groups hail Jonathan Wilkinson’s decision, which comes after mounting pressure from Indigenous peoples and the wider public, as a sign of federal follow-through on climate commitments

The federal government has ordered an environmental assessment of the Vista thermal coal mine expansion in Alberta, reversing a decision from late last year amid mounting pressure from Indigenous peoples, environmental organizations and citizens.

In his announcement, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson acknowledged the Vista project “may result in adverse effects of greater magnitude to those previously considered.”

Those adverse effects include the risk that the project may fail to mitigate impacts to Indigenous peoples, fish habitat and species at risk, all areas that fall under federal jurisdiction. Wilkinson also flagged the potential impacts on Aboriginal and Treaty rights, which include hunting, fishing and gathering. 

The federal government had initially stated that the Alberta Energy Regulator would be capable of addressing any concerns via a provincial review. In a letter sent to Wilkinson on May 1 requesting a federal assessment, lawyers for Louis Bull Tribe said a provincial process would not include consultation nor would it assess adverse effects on the Tribe’s rights.

Alan Andrews, a lawyer and climate program director at Ecojustice, said Wilkinson’s decision was a positive signal for Ottawa’s willingness to respect Indigenous rights. Andrews also said it sends a clear message on Canada’s climate commitments.

“I think it shows a real determination to lead on climate change and lead on the environment and show that the new impact assessment regime is fit for purpose,” Andrews said. 

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Ecojustice, on behalf of Keepers of the Water, Keepers of the Athabasca and the West Athabasca Watershed Bioregional Society, also submitted its own formal request to Wilkinson requesting a federal assessment.

“It would have I think made a mockery of the new regime if this had sailed through without a federal impact assessment,” Andrews said. “And it would have smacked of hypocrisy if Canada continued to strut around on the world stage urging other countries to power past coal, while at the same time selling the stuff to them.”

Canada has committed to phase out coal-fired electricity by 2030, although the proposed Vista project — which produces coal for electricity — would see the coal burned abroad. 

The cumulative emissions of the Vista project could total roughly 33 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, according to Ecojustice. Put another way, that’s the same as the greenhouse gas emissions from 7 million passenger vehicles for one year.

Wilkinson’s decision noted that Vista’s expansion plan amounted to just shy of the 50 per cent increase in production that would require a federal assessment. At the same time, total coal production would rise to 18,683 tonnes per day, well above the 5,000-tonne-per-day threshold outlined in regulations.

Coalspur, the company behind the Vista mine just outside of Hinton, Alta., had also submitted an application this year for a second initiative to construct new underground test mines. Ottawa will now be reviewing the expansion plan in tandem with the underground project.

Had Ottawa allowed Vista to be solely assessed on its original expansion plans, Andrews said it would have sent “a signal to project proponents that they can game the system and basically slice up a project into smaller chunks in order to avoid the statutory threshold for an impact assessment.”

Coalspur and affiliated company Bighorn Mining did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Overseas emissions and Canada’s climate commitments

Until now, any overseas emissions wouldn’t have been taken into consideration by the federal government in its assessment. But Wilkinson’s decision came in tandem with the release of a draft framework for assessing thermal coal projects that points to the need to look at downstream emissions.

“One of the major problems with how climate is addressed in Canadian law and policies is there’s an assumption that as soon as fossil fuels are sent overseas, that it’s no longer Canada’s problem,” Andrews said, adding that it’s important to consider whether overseas production is consistent with Canada’s climate obligations.

Julia Levin, climate and energy program manager at Environmental Defence, says this is the first time Ottawa has explicitly outlined considerations of downstream impacts in its assessment process.

“Research shows exported emissions are greater than our domestic emissions, so in terms of doing our fair share internationally under the Paris agreement, it is really key that we be looking at downstream,” Levin said.

“What we’d like to see going forward is all projects having their downstream emissions analyzed, but this is a start.”

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